By Angie Debo
The Choctaws believed in education; they were proud of their civilization which they regarded as the product of their schools, and they believed that their racial existence was dependent upon their ability to continue their cultural development. The Principal Chiefs unfailingly and earnestly upheld the schools, and no other public policy ever received such careful direction or such consistent support from the General Council.
The entire educational system was under the control of a board of trustees consisting of a superintendent and one trustee from each of the three districts into which the Nation was divided. These officials were elected for a term of two years by a joint ballot of both houses of the Council. They exercised a supervisory control over the neighborhood schools and boarding schools, and selected the students who were to be maintained in boarding schools or college at public expense. They met at the capital while the Council was in session, and submitted to it their accounts and reports. In 1890 the board of trustees was reorganized, the Principal Chief was made a member, and the name was changed to Board of Education of the Choctaw nation.1
Each district trustee established neighborhood schools in his district at the request of the local community, which was supposed to provide the building and equipment. He appointed three substantial citizens in each community who served as local trustees. It was their duty to select the teacher, who was then sent to the district trustee for examination, and to visit the school, reinforce the teacher's authority, and encourage the attendance of the children. In 1882 the number
1Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Oct. 31, 1872; Nov. 7, 1879; Oct. 31, 1890; Dec. 12, 1891. These manuscript acts of the General Council are in the Phillips Collection, University of Oklahoma.
of local trustees was reduced to one, and a salary of two dollars a month was provided.2
Ideally the neighborhood schools ran for nine or ten months, but they were frequently closed at the end of half that period because the money was exhausted.3 A compulsory attendance law was passed in 1884 penalizing the parents by a fine of ten cents a day for the absence of each child between the ages of seven and eighteen that could not be excused through bad weather, high water, or sickness.4 Free text books adopted by the Council—later by the Board of Education—were furnished the children, and the course of study was similar to that of the neighboring states even to the inclusion of United States history. The instruction was carried on in English and the children were discouraged in the use of their native language on the school ground.5
Some of the teachers were white, but most of them were Choctaws who had been educated in the tribal schools. They were examined in the Choctaw constitution and the common school subjects including United States history and government. They received a salary of two dollars a month for each child.6 They attended frequent teachers' meetings and institutes and summer normals, and at one time published a professional magazine called the Choctaw School Journal.7
Although the neighborhood schools were apparently as good as those of the surrounding states they formed the weakest part of the Choctaw educational system. They received nothing like a proportionate share of legislative appropriations, and they were often badly taught and irregularly attended. The boarding schools on the other hand maintained scholastic standards that would be a credit to any school system.
2Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Annual Report, 1870, p. 294. Report of Superintendent LeFlore, Aug. 29, 1870.
Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Nov. 7, 1879; Nov. 9, 1881; Nov. 1, 1882.
3The Vindicator (New Boggy and Atoka), March 16, 1872; July 3, 1875.
The Indian Champion (Atoka), Aug. 30, 1884.
The Indian Citizen (Atoka), Oct. 11, 1890.
6Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Oct. 31, 1890.
Report Commissioner of Indian Afairs, 1870, p. 295. Report of Superintendent LeFlore.
The boys' school at Spencer and the girls' school at New Hope were the first of the boarding schools to be reopened after the Civil War. In the fall of 1870 the Council authorized the board of trustees to contract with Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist mission boards to conduct these schools. A contract was accordingly made with the Methodist Episcopal Church South, by which for five thousand dollars annually the church agreed to take charge of New Hope, furnish the superintendent and teachers, and board, clothe, and teach fifty girls.8 A similar contract was made with the Presbyterian church regarding Spencer, and both schools after being closed since the outbreak of the war were opened for the term of 1871-1872.9
These two schools were the leading educational institutions of the Choctaws until the close of the tribal period. The old Fort Coffee property was soon turned over to New Hope,10 and in 1882 a substantial building was erected for the boys in Kiamitia County and Spencer was removed to the new location.11 Other improvements were made from time to time and the capacity of each school was increased to one hundred thirty-three from each district and one from the Choctaw population living among the Chickasaws.12 The quota from each district was distributed among the various counties according to their population in order to give equal privileges to all communities.13
In 1896 Spencer was destroyed by a fire in which four boys met a tragic death, and New Hope was burned down a few months later. The Nation made an attempt to rebuild Spencer, but by that time the educational system was passing out of tribal control and the importance of the two historic schools was ended.14
8Union Agency Files, Choctaw—Schools. Contract between Superintendent LeFlore and the Methodist Church, July 25, 1871.
9Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Nov. 2, 1870; Nov. 1, 1872; Oct. 23, 1876.
Report Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1871, p. 618.
14Indian Citizen, Oct. 8, 1896.
Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Nov. 11, 1897; March 25, Nov. 1, 1899; Nov. 6, 1901.
Report Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1897, p. 144.
The children who attended these boarding schools were selected by the trustee of their district until 1890, after which they were chosen by the county judge. The appointment was made upon the basis of their "promptness in attendance and their capacity to learn fast." They were held responsible for regular attendance at classes and progress in their studies, and not more than one was to be selected from any family. The ages were at first ten to sixteen for the girls and twelve to eighteen for the boys, and they had to be able to read in the Third Reader before entering.15
In 1885 the Council became dissatisfied with the mission management, and after a period of experimentation the two schools were placed under the control of the board of trustees. The teachers' qualifications as specified in the school law of 1890 were, for the men, graduation from a standard college and the ability to teach Greek, Latin, French, and German; and, for the women, graduation from a college or normal school and the ability to teach two modern languages besides English. The salaries were $1200 a year for the superintendents and $750 to $1200 for the teachers.16
As the national revenue increased from royalties on coal and taxes on white settlers other boarding schools were established. When Spencer was moved to the new location an orphans' home for both boys and girls was established temporarily in the old buildings. The old Armstrong Academy, which had been used as the capitol since the Civil War, was soon after vacated by the removal of the capital to Tushkahomma, and the boys' orphan school was located there. At the same time the long disused buildings of Wheelock Seminary were repaired and a school was established at that place for orphan girls.17
Children from six to twelve years of age who had lost one or both of their parents were placed in these schools where they might remain both summer and winter until the girls were sixteen and the boys eighteen years old. They were selected by the county judges upon the basis of their need,
15Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Nov. 7, 1879; Nov. 5, 1880; Oct. 19, 1883; Dec. 20, 1889; Oct. 31, 1890.
16Ibid., Nov. 5, 1880; Oct. 28, Nov. 10, 1885; Nov. 5, 1886; Oct. 31, 1890.
Report Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1887, p. 106; 1892, p. 255.
and the rule that limited one pupil to a family was set aside. In addition to the academic subjects the boys received agricultural and manual training, and the girls were instructed in home economics.18
Two new boarding schools were opened for Choctaw children in the fall of 1892—Jones Academy, near Hartshorne, for boys, and Tushkahomma, near the capital, for girls. Choctaw principals were placed in charge of both these schools, Peter J. Hudson at Tushkahomma, and S. T. Dwight at Jones.19
The Choctaws received their higher education at colleges in the "States." Well-to-do parents sometimes sent their children away to complete their education, and the Nation maintained a selected group of students in college at public expense. It was the duty of the district trustees to be present at the closing exercises of the boarding schools in their respective districts, and at that time upon the recommendation of the superintendent and teachers they chose the young people who were to be sent to college by the Nation. Both young men and young women were selected upon the basis of their promise, and they were allowed to continue until they had completed graduate and professional courses.20
Afflicted children were also supported in special schools by the Nation. Several deaf children were sent to a school in Illinois, and blind children were cared for in schools where they received special training.21 The children who were selected for the boarding schools, however, were required to pass a physical examination, and were to be removed unless their health was such that they could continue their course with profit to themselves and promise to the Nation.22
The Choctaws also made provision for the education of their freedmen. For the first twenty years after their emancipation the freedmen lived in the Choctaw Nation without any legal status, and during that period they had no schools except
19Ibid., Nov. 14, 1890; Apr. 4, Dec. 5, Dec. 10, 1891.
Report Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1892, p. 255.
20Report Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1869, p. 410. Report of Superintendent LeFlore, Sept. 6, 1869.
Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Oct. 30, 1876; Oct. 9, 1877; Nov. 7, 1879; Nov. 11, 1881.
Peter Hudson to Grant Foreman, Sept. 7, 1932.
21Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Oct. 27, 1893; Oct. 26, 1894; Oct. 26, 1895; Nov. 4, 1896; Oct. 26, 1900.
such as were provided by the federal government.23 When in 1885 they were adopted as citizens the articles of adoption provided that they should receive educational opportunities equal to those of the Choctaws so far as neighborhood schools were concerned.24 When the General Council convened the fall after their enrollment an appropriation was made for the immediate establishment of colored neighborhood schools. During that first winter thirty-four schools were opened with an enrollment of 847 children.25 In 1892 the Nation went beyond the obligation assumed by the act of adoption by establishing a colored boarding school. The new school received the name of Tushka Lusa, "Black Warriors," and Henry Nail, a Choctaw freedman, was made principal.26
The entire Choctaw school system was supported by the annuities, the income from invested funds, the coal and asphalt royalties, and the taxes and fees paid by non-citizens. The Choctaw people never paid school taxes except in the sense that they voted at a very early period to apply to the support of education the annuities that had formerly been paid per capita to the citizens. When Edmund McCurtain was trustee of Moshulatubbee District in 1874 he persuaded the voters of his district to sign a petition requesting the General Council to lay a property tax on live stock for the support of schools. He urged the other districts to take similar action but they failed to do so, and although McCurtain used all his influence with the Council the petition died in the committee room.27 This seems to have been the only tax measure ever attempted in the Chictaw Nation, unless the use of the income from the tribal estate for school and governmental purposes may be classed as a tax which bore equally upon all citizens.
While the Choctaws were providing at least the rudiments of an education for the entire people, and superior training for the few, the children of the non-citizen white population were growing up almost completely innocent of books. Some irregular provision was made for their education; schools were maintained by subscription in some of the towns. Some
white children attended the Choctaw neighborhood schools by the payment of tuition. And schools were established by the churches in all the larger towns, especially by the Presbyterians at McAlester, the Baptists at Atoka, and the Roman Catholics at McAlester, Atoka, and Lehigh; but except where the parents were unusually progressive, the schooling of the white children was entirely neglected.28
When in 1898 the Choctaws ratified the Atoka Agreement by which they consented to a division of their tribal property and a gradual dissolution of their tribal government, they incidentally lost control of their school system. Since this compact provided that the revenues from the coal and asphalt leases should be paid into the United States treasury and should be used for education, the Secretary of the Interior ruled that the schools were thereby placed under his control. In 1899 he appointed John D. Benedict of Illinois as superintendent of schools for the Indian Territory and E. T. McArthur of Minnesota as supervisor of the Choctaw schools. Benedict met with the members of the Choctaw Board of Education in April and found them, he said, very eager to surrender the schools to him. He and McArthur then assumed the management of the schools and held examinations and selected teachers.29
Benedict's reports show that he was without tact, and that he failed to appreciate the pride which the Choctaws felt for their most cherished institution. He drew a very dark picture of the incompetence and corruption that characterized the tribal school administration—a description that may have been true in a few instances, but was certainly grossly exaggerated if one is to judge the school system by the results it had accomplished in making the Choctaws a literate people. He condemned the emphasis on cultural subjects as unsound and unsuited to the people, and attempted by stressing vocational training to change at once the whole purpose of Choctaw education. He censured the boarding schools for the great proportionate cost of their maintenance and the limitation of their service to a selected group.30
28Report Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1887, p. 111; 1889, p. 205; 1890, p. 93; 1892, p. 256; 1897, p. 144.
Vindicator, Nov. 15, 1876.
When the General Council convened indignant resolutions were passed against the "interference of the said Secretary of the Interior without authority of law," and the Board of Education was "ordered and instructed to proceed at once to open up and conduct the schools of the Choctaw Nation according to the Choctaw Laws." A petition was also sent to Congress against the projected consolidation of all the territorial schools into one system, on the ground that "it would be a wrong against modest pride to wrest from the Choctaws and Chickasaws their schools, their highest edifice. Our present school system is the work of many years of earnest effort and steady improvement; and to take from us an institution cherished in its growth to close attachment would be at least unfair. Our system of management of the schools has proved satisfactory as is attested by results."31
Benedict visited the Council with Indian Inspector Wright and attempted to satisfy the Choctaw leaders, but no settlement was made; the Interior Department for the most part continued to manage the schools, but the Choctaw Board of Education employed teachers and tried to exercise a rival authority.32
When the Council convened in the fall of 1900 the fight to regain control of the schools was reopened. Resolutions were passed against the usurpations by the Secretary of the Interior, and the Board of Education was instructed to take possession of the boarding schools and administer them under Choctaw laws;33 but since the Department controlled the revenue, and since under the Atoka Agreement tribal laws were subject to presidential veto the Choctaw officials could do little except protest. The dispute was finally settled during the summer of 1901 by an agreement entered into by Superintendent Benedict and the Choctaw Board of Education and subsequently adopted by the Secretary of the Interior. The Department retained control of the schools, but the supervisor for the Choctaw Nation was to be assisted by an official nominated by the Chief with the approval of the Board of Education and appointed by the Secretary of the Interior.34
32Report Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1900, pp. 92-93, 156-157.
Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Oct. 24, 1900; Oct. 29, Oct. 30, 1901.
This concession to Choctaw pride ended the controversy, and the school system definitely passed out of tribal control. The office of district trustee was abolished by the Council the following fall and the superintendent's position was discontinued two years later.35 Under the new regime the boarding schools became vocational schools for the training of fullbloods,36 and the neighborhood schools soon became a part of the public school system of the new state of Oklahoma.37
35Ibid., 1903, pp. 77-79.
Report of the Select Committee to Investigate Matters Connected with Affairs in the Indian Territory (Washington, 1907), I, 926-930.
Acts of the Choctaw Nation, Nov. 4, 1901; Oct. 22, 1903. The act abolishing the office of district trustee was vetoed by Chief Dukes, but apparently it passed over his veto.
37Ibid., 1901, p. 138; 1902, p. 127; 1908, p. 219; 1909, p. 451; 1910, p. 227; 1911, pp. 463-464.
This agreement witnesseth—That Peter J. Hudson has been duly appointed Superintendent of Tvshkahoma Female Institute by the Board of Education of the Choctaw Nation and for his services he is to receive the sum of ($1200.00) twelve hundred dollars per annum—payable quarter annually according to law. As such Superintendent he is to take charge of and manage the Seminary—receiving one hundred Choctaw girls not less than twelve years of age—and able to read intelligently in the Fourth reader. To procure competent Instructors and furnish medical attendance, board, feed, clothing and lodging for the girls and conduct the said Seminary in every way after the manner of a well regulated high-grade boarding school. He is to defray all expenses necessary to the successful operation of the school. He is to receive the sum of ten thousand dollars quarterly as provided by law and render a correct account of the same. The balance if any belonging to the school. Also additional sum of Nineteen hundred and fifty dollars ($1950.00) for the salary of competent Instructors. The said Peter J. Hudson in all things to be governed strictly by the law of the Choctaw Nation governing and regulating the management of boarding schools.
Given under our hands and seal—this the sixth day of August A. D. 1892
Approved this the 6th day of August A. D. 1892.
W. N. Jones
Amos Henry—1st Dist Trustee
C(harles) Winston, 2nd Dist Trustee
T. B. Turnbull, 3rd Dist Trustee
(Simon T. Dwight was member of Board Education but failed to sign this)
P. J. Hudson